National News

Is Google's Free Software A Good Deal For Educators?

NPR News - Tue, 2014-08-26 04:03

The tech giant launches new tools for teachers.

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PODCAST: Sharing is caring, but not insured

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 03:00

First up, we've been reporting on merger talks between Burger King of the US and Tim Horton's of Canada. If it happens, Burger King would move its tax headquarters to Canada to save on American taxes. Today, there's news famed investor Warren Buffett is supplying about a quarter of the financing for the Burger King deal. This implies that Buffett is helping to fund a deal some republicans and democrats would regard as a legal but highly controversial tax dodge. And some top politicians also have a stake in these so-called tax inversion maneuvers. Now, back in May the biggest of inversion deals came up short. U.S. pharma giant Pfizer tried and failed to buy the British drugs company AstraZeneca. Under UK rules, Pfizer couldn't try again for three months. That means Pfizer's free to try again starting today. More on the overseas profits Pfizer wanted to keep away from the U.S. treasury. Plus, when it comes to the so-called "sharing economy," there's controversy about whether the likes of AirBnB or Uber violate local regulations for these sorts of things. But how have these new business models changed the world of insurance

Reports: U.S. Authorizes Surveillance Flights Over Syria

NPR News - Tue, 2014-08-26 02:46

The flights are intended to collect intelligence on Islamic State militants and could be a precursor to military strikes inside of Syria.

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A lack of hurricanes is not all good for insurers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 02:01

On this morning nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina was creeping west across the Gulf, after smashing through Florida. Since then, North America has not seen a major hurricane. Which might lead you to think all’s well with the insurance industry.

That's not exactly the case.

Katrina was the costliest disaster ever for insurance companies. They paid out more than $40 billion. Since then, it’s been pretty calm as catastrophes go.

But here’s the paradox: When the sky is clear, insurance prices can fall.

“The insurance marketplace had gone through a pretty severe soft cycle, oh, really for the last 10 years,” says David Bradford of industry consultancy Advisen.  

In general, lots of surplus money and insurance coverage is now chasing customers. It’s a buyer’s market.

As for insurers, they’re struggling with modest prices, but have plenty of reserves stocked away.

“They have built up sufficient reserves and can swallow large losses at this fairly well,” says Greg Knapic at Wells Fargo Insurance. “You just don’t want to have too many of them.”

And we have moved into this year’s big storm season. Knapic says it would take a record $50 billion or $100 billion event to shake up a crowded market.

On this morning nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina was creeping west across the Gulf, after smashing through Florida. Since then, North America has not seen a major hurricane. Which might lead you to think all’s well with the insurance industry. Not exactly.

 

Katrina was the costliest disaster ever for insurance companies. They paid out more than $40 billion dollars. Since then, it’s been pretty calm as catastrophes go.

 

But here’s the paradox: when the sky is clear, insurance prices can fall.

 

“The insurance marketplace had gone through a pretty severe soft cycle, oh, really for the last ten years,” says David Bradford of industry consultancy Advisen.  
In general, lots of surplus money and insurance coverage is now chasing customers. It’s a buyer’s market.

 

As for insurers, they’re struggling with modest prices, but have plenty of reserves stocked away.

 

“They have built up sufficient reserves and can swallow large losses at this fairly well,” says Greg Knapic at Wells Fargo Insurance. “You just don’t want to have too many of them.”

 

And we have moved into this year’s big storm season. Knapic says it would take a record $50 or 100 billion dollar event to shake up a crowded market.

 

 

 

Bringing accountability to police through data

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 02:00

Following events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of talk of putting policing on tape. There has also been talk of how big data can help reduce abuses of power and bring more truth and reconciliation to fraught police-citizen interactions. PC Magazine columnist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin says part of the issue is putting the power of data into the hands of the public.

One of the central problems, he says, is that no one seems to be looking at hard data on this issue.

“If there are bad apple cops, how come we don’t know the data about them until they've done something deadly?" Abdul-Matin asked. 

In terms of implementing this system, Abdul-Matin advises implementation with departments that are already using body cameras to record interactions with citizens, and collecting that data for internal use before bringing in crowd sourced information from the public at large.

While this itself won’t fix police-citizen interactions, it would bring a level of confidence in communities that accountability can actually happen, Abdul-Matin said. 

Volcanic rumblings stir economic concerns

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 02:00

One of Iceland’s many volcanoes has “stirred."

After more than a century of quiescence, Bardarbunga – in the interior of country – has shown some ominous signs of seismic unrest. Some 300 mini earthquakes have been recorded in the vicinity, and molten lava has reached the summit and is now melting the ice cap. The Icelandic authorities have evacuated the area and warned that if there is an eruption, it could be big enough to disrupt air travel over Europe.

The warning has raised some painful memories. The Eyjafjallajokull eruption in April 2010 caused the largest and longest closure of European airspace since World War II; grounding thousands of flights, stranding millions of passengers and costing the airlines more than $2 billion dollars.

But there are good reasons for believing that history isn’t about to repeat itself.

For one thing, there’s been a change in the civil aviation flight rules. In 2010, if there was any ash in the sky, you were forbidden to fly.

But today that’s considered far too restrictive. The rule has been relaxed because weather forecasters with advanced radar are now much better at tracking ash clouds and steering planes away from them. And it is understood that planes can fly safely through lower densities of ash.

“The restrictive flight rules have gone,” says Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist at the Open University in Edinburgh. “With the knowledge and experience we gained from 2010, we now have a much better idea of how to deal with airborne ash. If Bandarbunga does erupt, it will not cause anything like the scale of disruption as Eyjafjallajokull. Absolutely nothing like it.”

That does not mean volcanoes no longer pose a threat to aviation.

“Because a jet sucks in huge amounts of air, if that air contains a lot of ash it will – over a period – accumulate and damage the engine,” explains Colin Brown of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London. “If all the engines are affected in that way, the aircraft is going to come down."

Under the current rules, aircraft must not fly if there is more than 4 milligrams of ash in a cubic meter of air in its flight path; the equivalent of a teaspoonful of material in an Olympic size swimming pool. Not as trifling an amount of ash as it seems, says Colin Brown.

“Aircraft engines suck in an Olympic size swimming pool of air every second, so if you’re in that kind of ash cloud, you could end up with about a kilogram coming into the engine once every four minutes. Fly for four or eight minutes and you suddenly have one or two kilos of rock inside your engine. That’s not something any of us would want to contemplate," he says.

Nevertheless, to reassure nervous flyers, it’s worth pointing out that volcanic ash has never, in the entire history of aviation, actually caused a fatal aircraft crash.

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bardarbunga. The text has been corrected.

U.S. corporations park billions overseas

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 02:00

In the spring of 2014, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tried to buy British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca for $116 billion. In May, the bid was rejected. U.K. politicos objected on economic nationalism grounds, while some AstraZeneca investors considered the offer too low. Under U.K. takeover rules, Pfizer can make another run at AstraZeneca starting on August 26.

Even if Pfizer doesn’t succeed in acquiring AstraZeneca, Pfizer CEO Ian Read has said he is "aggressively" seeking other acquisitions — Ireland-based Actavis is said to be a possible target. If Pfizer were able to become a foreign-based company, and shift its domicile to the U.K. or Ireland, it would be able to bring home as much as $30 billion in international profits without being subject to the 35 percent U.S. corporate tax rate on that money, says Martin Sullivan, chief economist at TaxAnalysts.com. (Sullivan points out that Pfizer would likely pay a lower tax rate in actuality.)

“Part of the allure is to get into lower-tax countries,” says Sullivan. "Like the U.K., with 21 percent, and Ireland, with 12.5 percent.”

Major American companies — including GE, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Google, Cisco, Microsoft and Apple — are estimated to have nearly $2 trillion parked outside the U.S.; profits from international operations and investments. They use the money to buy foreign companies and factories.

Or, it just sits in the bank, says Brad McMillan, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial.

“You can make an argument that shareholders would be better off if the money was brought home, taxes were paid, and it was distributed, or put to use in the business," says McMillan.

McMillan says companies could pay higher dividends to shareholders, or build new factories in the U.S. But he says that’s unlikely, until U.S. corporate tax rates come down. And he thinks that is a political long-shot, at least until the 2016 presidential election.

How too much corn spells trouble far beyond the fields

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-26 01:00

We are awash in corn.

Why?

Last year was a record corn production year and this year is shaping up to be just as good. Let's explain why this acreage of corn crops can be problematic. 

What do we do with all the corn we produce in general? And what about the surplus?

Most of it is being used as always: to make corn-based products, to make animal feed and to make ethanol. But the surplus that isn't being used for those things is being piled up in grain elevators, or stored in long tubes on the ground. Farmers and buyers are having problems finding enough trucks and freight cars to get the grain around the country. All this corn is literally clogging up the system, and prices are plummeting. Corn prices have fallen by more than 20 percent over the last year, to a four-year low.

Isn't it a good thing when cereal prices fall?

In some ways, this is great news. It will be cheaper to feed chickens, pigs and cows, and of course the price of any corn-based products will fall all as well. We'll be able to stockpile corn for the future, in case 2015 is a bad production year. We may even be able to help other, needier, countries with our surplus.

I can feel a "but" coming...

Yep: cheap corn is good news for buyers, but bad news for sellers. Farmers who hadn't pre-sold their grain are now finding they can't get much money for their product. And many were already suffering because corn prices were already depressed by last year's bumper crop.

Add in the fact that land is getting more expensive, China is buying less, there are fewer animals in the U.S. to feed, there's a cap on ethanol production, and the cost of seed and fertilizer are holding steady, and you can see that farmers are being squeezed.

It's not just farmers, right?

Right. There are all sorts of businesses associated with farmers that are affected. Heavy equipment manufacturers are in a particular pickle. Between 2010 and 2013, grain was scarce, so farmers were able to charge a lot for their crop. They made a lot of money and spent a lot of it on farming equipment. Which means that a) they've got pretty new gear and don't need to buy replacement stuff and b) with times tight, they're not going to want to splash out on a new tractor or whatever.

What are the equipment manufacturers doing?

They're cutting back operations and laying people off. John Deere reckons it will have to let as many as 1,000 workers go. It is seeing weakness in Europe and South America, as well as in the U.S.

How bad is this going to be for the economy?

For the economy overall, not too bad.

Farmers have had a good few years, so the pressure on them this year won't kill them. Some farms may go out of business, but not many. Equipment manufacturers are used to the cyclical nature of the farming business, so they won't go under either.

But people are going to lose their jobs, and whether they work on farms or in equipment firms, those jobs tend to be in places where other work is scarce. So, a lot of individuals will likely be suffering this coming winter.

Student Activists Keep Pressure On Campus Sexual Assault

NPR News - Tue, 2014-08-26 00:59

More than 70 colleges are under investigation for how they've handled sexual assaults. The current attention to campus sexual assault has been driven largely by student activists using social media.

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Many Homeowners Still Qualify For Mortgage Relief

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:44

A federal program known as HARP could save homeowners who qualify to refinance an average $200 a month. But many who hear about it are suspicious, says Federal Housing Finance Agency chief Mel Watt.

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On Ocean City's Boardwalk, Costumed Performers Prompt Legal Debate

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:42

The Maryland beach town is grappling with an influx of boardwalk performers, including costumed characters and a pole dancer. Police say the city's hands are essentially tied because of legal rulings.

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The 'Greening' Of Florida Citrus Means Less Green In Growers' Pockets

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:40

Orange juice sales are at their lowest point in 10 years. Florida's citrus industry is reeling from a disease called "greening," while consumers face dozens of other choices in the supermarket aisle.

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China's 'Great Wall' Takes A Hit At U.S. Heavyweight Boxing

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:38

At 6 feet 11 and 285 pounds, Taishan Dong hopes to be the next big heavyweight fighter in a boxing class that's hurting for stars.

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Probe: No Proof VA Delays Caused Phoenix Veterans To Die

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:24

Revelations that 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital rocked the agency, bringing to light scheduling problems and allegations of misconduct at other hospitals as well.

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'Breaking Bad' Wins Its Final Emmy Award

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 19:23

Nearly a year after wrapping up, the AMC drama Breaking Bad and its star Bryan Cranston have two more nice going-away presents: Emmys for best drama and actor in a drama.

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The List Of Emmy Winners

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 19:09

The list of winners at Monday's 66th annual Primetime Emmy Awards presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

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Could A 2-Year-Old Boy Be 'Patient Zero' For The Ebola Outbreak?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-25 14:29

Scientists now think the entire outbreak in West Africa was triggered by one person and then the virus took off from there. Early signs pointed to a little boy in southern Guinea.

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Forget the Whopper. How about doughnuts and coffee?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

The fast food industry is not the easiest place to be right now, even for a [Burger] King. The chain is talking about a merger with Tim Hortons, a coffee and doughnut staple in Canada. So, how does it help one fast-food chain to acquire... another one?

“The market is incredibly competitive,” says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President with Technomic, a food industry research and consultancy based in Chicago. He says growth is very low – just about 3 to 3.5 percent. Inflation for the industry is also expected to be about 3.5 percent, thanks to rising costs of commodities like beef. So, it’s almost a wash.

“We don’t see any real growth for the restaurant industry as a whole,” Tristano says.

Low-income customers haven’t seen much if any wage growth, so they’re holding onto their cash. Higher income customers have been wooed by higher-end places like Chipotle and Panera – “fast casuals” as Morningstar’s senior restaurant analyst RJ Hottovy calls them. “That’s the sweet spot in the industry,” and it is not a spot occupied by Burger King.

But if Burger King can’t immediately control its customers’ spending, it can control its own, and that has been one area of focus ever since the fast food chain was bought and taken by Brazilian private equity firm 3g in 2010.

“They have been cutting costs to free up resources. And they’ve been running the business less like a restaurant, and more like a financial company,” says Tristano.

Whereas at one point 10 percent of Burger King’s restaurants were actually owned and operated by Burger King, the company washed its hands of all of them, and now leaves the operation of its locations (and the exposure that comes with direct ownership from labor costs to maintenance budgets) to franchisees, says Charles Pinson-Rose, director at Standard and Poor's. “It’s all royalty revenue, and it allows the company to improve cash flows.”

The chain has aggressively tried to keep up with McDonalds on menu items, revamping its menu several times. It has expanded successfully in Brazil, China, and Russia. Pinson-Rose echoes an oft-heard sentiment in summing up the King’s reign of late: “Overall they’ve largely been successful, but the reality is it’s a very difficult environment for food service in the United States.”

Ironically, that’s exactly where acquiring Canadian firm Tim Hortons could help Burger King. Tim Hortons is successful in one of the few arenas that seem to be looking up for fast food: coffee.

“Starbucks continues to do very well with strong profit margins, you see McDonalds make coffee a key priority, and I think this partnership strengthens Burger King’s coffee offering as well,” Hottovy says.

“The push out of Starbucks is to push its own packaged coffee, and Tim Hortons has the same kind of aspirations,” says Hottovy. Partnering with Burger King could help Hortons and Burger King both on that front.

Of course, the tax benefits and easier access to cash abroad that Burger King would get by reincorporating in Canada... well, that can’t hurt.

High school will keep starting too early. Here's why.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined a chorus that’s been growing louder for years: The school day should start later for teenagers because they aren’t wired to go to bed early — and they need their sleep.

The AAP says this is a public-health issue: Sleep-deprived teenagers are more likely to crash cars, get depressed, and become obese. Also, they may not do as well in school. 

However, early start times aren't going away quickly, and probably won't, because of the costs.

That's surprising because, from the outside, the economics of a later start-time seem pretty good. A 2011 study from the Brookings Institution looked at three ways school districts could improve just by getting better organized. Starting school later for teens was number one.    

"Among all the things schools could do to increase student performance, this is one of the less expensive ones," says Brian Jacob, an economics and public-policy professor at the University of Michigan, one of the study's co-authors. "This is not like hiring extra teachers to reduce class size, or building a big new expensive building."

School boards often hear objections about disruptions at the other end of the school day: Kids getting home really late from sports practice or chess club. Or not being able to work after-school jobs.

The big issue — the expensive issue — is transportation, says Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Amundson is a former member of the school board in Fairfax County Virginia, which is ground zero for debates on school start times.

The debate started there when Amundson was serving, back in the 1990s; buses were the sticking point.

"How school districts make school buses pay is, you basically use the equipment as much as you can," Amundson says.

Meaning, the district runs each bus multiple times every morning. High school students typically get picked up on the first run, which can happen before sunrise for part of the year. 

Asked why little kids, who tend to be early risers, couldn't start early, Amundson laughs. "Oh, no, that was a non-starter," she says. "There were exactly zero of us who were prepared to have five year-olds on the street in the dark."

She says later start times probably work better for smaller districts, with fewer buses to run.  Fairfax County’s School Board is scheduled to vote on a later-start proposal in October.

What happens when Miley Cyrus blesses your cause

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-25 13:51

Heather Carmichael, executive director of My Friend’s Place,  a nonprofit that supports homeless youth in Hollywood, says thanks to Miley Cyrus' promotion at MTV's Video Music Awards Sunday,  $70,000 in donations had come in as of Monday morning.

“Today’s been a little bit of a whirlwind – it actually started last night,” she said.

Carmichael notes that My Friend’s Place is privately funded. "So coming into this opportunity is really out of the ordinary... ever so extraordinary," she says. "It’s a rare day that we will be able to raise that amount of money in that short period of time."

The money, says Carmichael,  could go to anything from providing more food to longer hours to adding more staff. But Jeff Shuck, CEO of Plenty, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits raise money through peer-to-peer fundraising, says a nonprofit should take a moment to stop and think about the money.

“It’s an aberration, it’s a windfall, it’s not something that can be easily replicated,” he says.

One trap, says Shuck, is for nonprofits is to make long-term decisions like hiring new staff based on a one-time shot of income that isn't sustainable. Instead, he says, organizations should think about saving and improving infrastructure.

"Annoying purchases that you would not otherwise want to spend money on," he says. “We can’t change the world unless we can turn the lights on. We can’t make a difference to other people in our lives unless we have desks and paper and computers.”

As for the strategy of using a celebrity to raise money, says Trevor Neilson, president of G2 Investment Group and co-founder ofGlobal Philanthropy Group, a consultancy for nonprofits - and a friend who advised Cyrus on how to promote My Friend’s Place - “really, it comes down to a combination of both raising awareness, but also raising funds."

"Any celebrity-oriented philanthropic campaign that doesn’t actually raise money to create real change in the world, isn’t really a success," he says. "It’s fine to raise awareness but if you don’t raise awareness and don’t create real world change, you’re not really helping these kids."

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